Macron criticizes Le Pen for ties with Moscow and promised to ban the veil in the French presidential debate

French President Emmanuel Macron criticized his far-right rival, Marine Le Pen, in a television debate on Wednesday for her ties to Russia and for wanting to strip Muslim women of their right to cover their heads in public, while seeking the votes you need to win. another five-year term.

In their only face-to-face confrontation before the electorate has its say in Sunday’s winner-takes-all vote, Macron pulled the gloves off and argued his rival is unfit to lead Europe’s ethnically diverse power. and with nuclear weapons and dealing with Moscow. He tried to portray Le Pen as fundamentally unreliable, accusing her of dishonesty and using flawed figures in her election promises.

He also said the anti-immigration candidate’s plans to ban Muslim women from wearing veils in public would spark a “civil war” in a country that has the largest Muslim population in Western Europe.

Le Pen, in turn, sought to appeal to voters struggling with rising prices amid the fallout from Russia’s war in Ukraine. She said lowering the cost of living would be her priority if she were elected as France’s first female president, presenting herself as the candidate for voters who can’t make ends meet.

He said Macron’s presidency had left the country deeply divided and repeatedly referred to the so-called “yellow vest” protest movement that rocked his government before the COVID-19 pandemic with months of violent demonstrations against his economic policies.

People watch the debate at the studios hosting the event in La Plaine-Saint-Denis on Wednesday. (Ludovic Marin/The Associated Press)

“France needs to be united again,” he said.

The debate highlighted the yawning gap in politics and character between the two candidates once again vying for the presidency, five years after Macron comfortably beat Le Pen in 2017.

Polls suggest Macron, a pro-European centrist, has a significant and growing lead over Le Pen, an anti-immigration nationalist, ahead of Sunday’s vote. But the result is expected to be closer than it was five years ago, with both candidates seeking votes among voters who did not support them in the first round of the April 10 election.

“I’m not like you,” Le Pen said as they discussed France’s energy needs.

“You are not like me,” Macron said. “Thanks for the reminder.”

combat over russia

The French leader was particularly scathing in his criticism of a loan obtained by Le Pen’s party in 2014 from a Russian-Czech bank. He said the debt meant that, if he were elected president, Le Pen’s hands would be tied when he dealt with the Kremlin.

“You’re talking to your banker when you talk about Russia, that’s the problem,” Macron charged in the evening prime-time debate expected to be watched by millions.

“You made a choice that obviously acted as a constraint on your political position and doesn’t make you independent on that issue. That is a fact,” Macron said.

A person walks past campaign posters in Sevres, outside Paris, on Wednesday. (Christophe Ena/The Associated Press)

Le Pen bristled at Macron’s suggestion that he is beholden to Russia. She described herself as “totally free”. She said her party is paying the loan and called him “dishonest” for raising the issue.

Just hours before Wednesday’s debate, jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny weighed in on the French presidential campaign, urging voters to back Macron and claiming that Le Pen is too linked to Russia.

Macron puts Le Pen on the defensive

Macron came out ahead of the first round on April 10. But Le Pen, who has gained ground this year by tapping into anger over inflation, has significantly narrowed the gap in public support compared to 2017, when he lost 34 percent of the vote to Macron’s 66 percent.

Both candidates had carefully prepared for Wednesday’s debate. But Le Pen got off to an inauspicious start: having been chosen to speak first, she began speaking before the opening jingle of the debate had finished playing. Inaudible because of the music, she had to stop and start again. She apologized.

CLOCK | Macron, Le Pen addressed the second round:

Macron and Le Pen are heading to the second round to decide the French presidential elections

Polls indicate that incumbent French President Emmanuel Macron and far-right politician Marine Le Pen are headed for a runoff to decide the 2022 French presidential election. 2:06

Once the jousting began, Macron quickly put Le Pen on the defensive. She focused on her voting record as a legislator and questioned her understanding of the economic numbers.

In 2017, a similar debate dealt a decisive blow to his campaign.

Both candidates need to broaden support before Sunday’s vote. Many French people, especially on the left, say they still don’t know if they will go to the polls.

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